Mirrors’R’Suns, or Egyptian Reflections

This will be a difficult posting. In some way, the postings of this kind have to open any blogs about mirrors. But I’ve chosen otherwise and started from the posts about van Eyck or Velázquez (or the anonymous master of the School of Fontainebleau who created the Belle Gabrielle), all depending on what to call the ‘opening’ of the blog. Yet I kept the plans to write this text almost from the very beginning of this mirrors-in-art saga and my internal to-do list invariably started with the –Mirrors of Ancient Egypt (in preparation) point. But even after three years of chewing these issues I still didn’t manage to do it (until today, that is).

One simple reason is the amount of materials one has to seep through. It is so colossal that even very significant efforts spent on studying them would still leave one on a scratching-the-surface level. This understanding is so vivid that it suppresses the very impulse to start writing; don’t even think kind of thoughts.

Yet it would be unfair to give up and skip this theme, of mirrors of/in/and Ancient Egypt, only because it’s difficult. The subject had such a deep and profound effect on many later developments in European history of mirrors, and of mirrors-in-art, that finally I decided to write at least something, even if short and incomplete. Let’s call it a stub, a claim of some territory and at the same time a pledge to return to this topic later and elaborate it further.

As I already wrote, ‘Ancient Egypt’ is simply too big to think about it properly, bigger than any other civilisation we know (I almost wrote ‘all of them together’, but that would be too much. Perhaps.)

I found this collage below, made by American illustrator David Kennet, that illustrates this sheer scope; an endless kaleidoscope of pyramids, pharaohs, mummies, hieroglyphs, Sphinx (and myriads of other legendary creatures), and all that expanding during an unimaginably long period of time.

The eternal character of the civilisation of Ancient Egypt is one of its largest enigmas. How on Earth this civilisation managed to sustain itself during almost five (!) thousands (!!!) years is a) still unclear and b) anyway difficult to comprehend.

When legendary (and legendary archaic) Homer was born (some say around 800 BCE, some say even earlier that that), the kingdoms of Ancient Egypt already had more than two thousand years of written (!) history, and at least the same amount years more of unrecorded one, if we add the so called predynastic eras. That’s totally mind-blowing.

Interestingly, but I didn’t find the depictions of mirror in the above collage (at least, mirrors in a conventional sense), which is clearly an omission on the David Kennet’s side. Egypt is rightfully considered one of the birth-cradles of mirror-making by humans. The earliest metal mirrors we found so far are from Mesopotamia (today’s Iran), dated at 4,000 BCE . But what archeologists discovered in the burials of the so-called Badari culture (5,000 – 4,500 BCE) could well be considered the first man-made mirrors.

{I live aside here the allegedly first human mirrors created with ‘water surfaces’ (I wrote about my attitude to this theory in the posting about Narcissus) as well as the ‘mirrors’ made of the minerals such as obsidian (I may write about those later)}

Below is not the mirror from Ancient Egypt, of course, it’s a contemporary creation. But the mineral used to make its frame, selenite, is the same one that was used to make a polished disk that was found near Badarri village in Southern (or Upper) Egypt and that is considered to be one of the earliest human mirrors.

I have to mention here that my main source of knowledge about these earliest mirrors is the book Mirror, Mirror: A history of the human love affair with reflection, by Mark Pendergrast. When describing this artifact, he writes about “a slab of selenite, with traces of wood around it that may have been a mirror frame”.

The description is followed by Barbara O’Neill in “Reflections of Eternity: An Overview on Egyptian Mirrors from Prehistory to the NewKingdom“:

“There is no evidence of metallic mirrors from Egypt’s Predynastic period. However, a highly polished selenite flake set into a wooden frame has been dated to the Badarian era (c. 4400 to 4000 BC) indicating remarkable ingenuity in the design of this early prototype.”

(My guess is that the above quote was more or less copied from the Mirror, Mirror book).

I managed to find only one publication with the image of this ‘slab’ in the internet. It’s a very old (1924) book about the Badarian Civilisation, by Guy Brunton and Gertrude Caton-Thompson. The description of this artifact in the book is very short : “Selenite occurred in the form of a large slab in grave 569… There were faint traces of wood round it, and it has been suggested that it was used as a mirror.”  As I see, this description migrated almost literally to the book by Pendergrast.

Not without some efforts I found the image of the objects from this grave in the book (as I said, it’s a very old book, and the way of indexing they use is very obscure). Above is what I believe is this very ‘slab’ (although I could be wrong, there are few objects grouped together in one pictures and the exact description of which one of them is the ‘mirror’ is very vague).

Pendergrast also writes about the second candidate, ‘the disk of slate’, from the same El-Badari settlement (and it also dated back to 4,400 BCE). I didn’t find in the internet any images of the artifact he is talking about, but in the same book about the Badarian Civilisation the authors write (p.35):

“There are no Predynastic mirrors known, so far. But Professor Petrie suggests that wetted slate may have been used [as the mirror] (Objects of Daily Use, p.28).  A slab of mica, possibly a mirror, is in the Aswan Museum.”

The Aswan Museum mentioned in the book is now known as Numibia Museum; either way, its website is very poor and doesn’t present any ‘mirrors’ (though I found a comb).

Slate (or mica) is interesting material, widely used in the past but not necessarily familiar to the modern people. There is a chance that you saw the stale tiles, for example, on the roofs of the old buildings or churches in Europa& Though I can bet you didn’t assume that they placed these tiles to create a reflective roofs (even for ‘after rain’ conditions).

Slate, or rather slate-like tiles, are becoming popular from time to time in contemporary interior design; some of them could be polished fairly well. In case they are getting wet, one can see the pictures like this one:

As we can clearly see, even even in the most ideal situation (well-polished – and wetted – slate tiles, bright light) they can hardly be used as the mirrors. But they could be used as the good reflectors of light, though, as the picture above also shows.

What does surprise me is that there are so few discoveries of such ‘mineral’, pre-metallic mirrors in the Predynastic period (i.e., earlier than 3,000 BCE); in fact, I found only two, and both coming from the same old book. I am not aware of any other discoveries of these ancient mirrors made made later in the 20th century.

My rather uninformed opinion lean to the following:  even if these artifacts did exist, they were unlikely used as mirrors in the modern sense, e.g., as the tools to check your make-up, but they could likely be used as a kind of ritual objects associated with the cult of the sun. For example, they could be used as the reflectors of sunlight, or even as the miniature suns.

Also important is that these artifacts were found in the graves. In one way it’s obvious, since almost everything that we know about Ancient Egypt we found in their graves. We are lucky that they hold a belief that their dead people should be equipped with all sort of things to help them in their journeys to the Kingdom of Dead, and were putting all sorts of everyday objects with their dead.

Yet it’s somehow eerie to imagine the dead Egyptians in their graves still looking at the mirrors.

***

And in any case, all these semi-mythical Predynastic mirrors are only a preface to my story, if only because what we saw are the mirrors, not the representation thereof. And also the mirrors we mostly associate with Ancient Egypt look differently. The picture below depicts a more typical mirror:

This particular set, of a mirror and a razor, is from the tomb of Ramose and Hatnofer, the parents of some Senenmut, one of the state officials under the reign of the pharaoh Hatshepsut, of the 18th dynasty of Egypt’s New Kingdom, who ruled the country from 1475 till 1458 BCE.)

But this is already quite an advanced mirror, with a well-rounded disc made of bronze and an elaborate handle. The earlier mirrors were made of copper, and later of the alloys of tin and copper (=bronze), and than eventually with some addition of silver and gold (sometimes, although rather rarely, they were entirely made silver). The earliest copies of Egyptian copper mirrors date from 2900 BCE.  The shapes of many of them indicated that they likely had handles, made of wood or ivory.

Strictly speaking, the earliest copper mirrors we found so far are from Iran, from the Mesopotamia area, and they dated to 4,000 BCE (here again my source of knowledge is the book by Pendergrast).

But the mirrors we find in the tombs of Egypt are way more numerous (even now we see them in many museums worldwide who have even modes Egyptian collection). They are also more diverse and span over large time period.

Here is again an example of the silver mirror that belonged to the king of Nubia Amani-Nataki-Lebte who ruled in the late 6th century BC. The mirror has a very interesting handle, two of its figurines depict the supreme deities of Egypt, the gods Amun (or Amon) and Ra (or Re), and two others are the king himself, apparently.

 

This, and many other examples show that “mirrors” most likely were used not (or not only) as cosmetic tools, but were important, symbolically loaded objects, the symbols of the Sun and Ra (and other deities). It is because of that I tend to write about “mirrors” or “so-called mirrors.” We project our own understanding (and use) of mirrors to these objects, but it may happen to be that the Egyptians used with differently, with different purposes. What if their main function was to produce the flecks of sunlight chasing each other on the wall?

I will show a few more examples of Egyptian mirrors (or “mirror”). In no way it is a “complete series”, there are many hundreds, if not thousands Egyptian mirrors known up to day, and to show them all one would need a separate blog.

For example, below is the mirror that is described as ‘the oldest’ one we know

at least it is what one Russian blog states. But also found another description that dates this mirror to c. 2,000 BCE – meaning it’s a very old mirror, but not the oldest one, I assume, also because it looks quite elaborate technically, the one that would require to forge the disc and the handle simultaneously.

Here is an example of a more or less ‘typical mirror’ of Ancient Egypt:

It’s a fairly recent one, attributed to the so called Late Period (600-300 BCE). Its handle is made in form of woman’s statuette, holding an arch of some sort, with a bronze disk attached to the women’s head.  But she could be the goddess Hathor as well, one of the symbols of whom was her boat she was gliding in from dusk till dawn over the sky arch .

As often happen, the reflective surface of this mirror is corroded by now, and we can’t really see anything reflecting in it. To imagine how these mirrors could work, we can have a look at the contemporary remakes:

Some of them enact the state-of-the-art of the Egyptian mirrors better than the others, but in general one may get an idea how good the reflection may look like in these mirrors (usually not very good) – beware that the examples you see above are made of contemporary materials and with contemporary tools.

Here is another sample, a bronze mirror of the age of Ancient Kingdoms (c. 2040-1750 BC), which is now on display in the British Museum. The handle of this mirror depict not people (or gods) but birds – eagles or falcons, that were considered the attribute of Ra/Re:

In case of this mirror its description in the museum explicitly states: “The reflective surface [of mirrors] was interpreted as the sun disc, because of its shape and shiny qualities“.

A couple of more examples:

 

 

***

Here I need to admit that all these interesting mirrors again were merely a preface to the story; an important one, providing some context into the technology, but still a preface. My interest, as usual, is not in the mirrors per se, but in their depictions in ‘art’ (whatever the ‘art’ meant back then).

Direct search in the internet usually brings these two examples:

1. The fragment of a fresco described as ‘Woman nursing a child; a servant holds a mirror and a crayon of khol (ancient cosmetics for eyes)’, and is dated to the 19th-20th dynasty, or 1285-1069 BCE. I found this description only in the so called Lessing Archive, which in turn refer to the Louvre’s Departement des Antiquites Egyptiennes… where I found nothing so far that would resemble this limestone (I mean their website; haven’t been to the Louvre lately to check it myself).

 

2. A relief that is usually described as ‘Woman putting her make-up’ (alternatively ‘Woman cleaning her face’). It pops up in the web searches very regularly, but I didn’t manage to find any attribution that would be more specific than ‘Ancient Egypt’.

 

Compared to the previous two, the next example of the ‘mirrors in art’ of Ancient Egypt is famously known and very well described. The relief, shown below, is currently in the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo, Egypt:

The scene is usually described as ‘Queen Kawit at her toilet’. Depicted is the queen herself, sitting on a chair, with a servant girl arranging her hair, while a male servant pours her a drink; the queen already drinks from a bowl.

In her left arm she holds a mirror, as if to check how well her wig will be made at the end:

The relief was found in the sarcophagus found at Deir el-Bahri temple complex, not far from Luxor. The Queen Kawit was one of the wives of the Pharaoh Mentuhotep II, who ruled the country in 2046 – 1995 BCE and who is considered the first Pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom.

The Queen Kawit was only a queen consort, one of the lower ranking queens, and her sarcophagus is relatively modest in size, but it was intact when found and so we have this wonderful earliest example of the  ‘mirrors in art’.

Again, I obviously have some reservations as to what extent this object is a ‘mirror’ in our sense of the word (and if, for instance, the Queen Kawit was indeed going to use to double-check the quality of her haircut or her wig).  As one her the titles on her tomb indicates, she was also the Priestess of Hathor, one of the main Egyptian goddess of fertility and motherhood, but also of love/sex – and of the sky, for that matter (although it may be a gross simplification, but Hathor could be compared to Aphrodite of Greece, and to Venus of the Romans).

Hathor was often depicted as a woman, but sometimes as a cow, or a falcon (or a woman with a cow’s or falcon’s head), as shown on the relief above. Almost invariably though, she is also carrying a disk (the sun?) on her head and holding an ankh, the symbol of life, in her arm.  The Ankh, as we will see, was intricately connected to ‘mirrors’, thus the Queen Kawit on that relief could well be holding this symbol of her goddess, and not a cosmetic tool.

 

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Now I need to move to the largest and the most difficult part of this story. And quickly tell about Ra, Isis, Horus, Hathor, Amun, and Three Thousand and One Other Egyptian Gods, Goddesses and miscellaneous Deities.

While having this long list of gods to tell about, I would actually like to start with Ankh.

Below is one of the most iconic representations of Ankh, the famous Egyptian symbol of life, of the Sun, of health, of power, and of the very being:

Interestingly, but this is in fact a mirror case in the form of an ankh, from the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (c.1370-52 BCE), one of the most famous rulers of the New Kingdom (he is also one of the media favorites, and most likely you’ve seen this golden mask of him, if not in real than in multiple books and publications about Ancient Egypt).

 

One can get an impression that nearly every thing from the tomb of Tutankhamun is made of gold. This is *almost* write for this Ankh-case too. Its halves are carved out of wood but they fully covered with the gold plates and inlaid with semi-precious stones, to the extent that the object becomes a precious one. Below are both part of the cases on display:

The mirror itself, which presumably was stored in this case, was not in the case when it was discovered in 1922. The tomb was nearly intact, but there were traces that its robbed already thousands years ago. It is believed that the mirror was also made from silver or even gold, and was an easy prey for the grave robbers. These days one can find images of the “mirror” of Tutankhamun, similar to this one:

but these are contemporary copies.

The depictions of ankh are omnipresent and we find the on various artifacts of Ancient Egypt, and yet its origin, its exact meaning, and the practices related to this object are still widely debated by Egyptologists.

It is believed that the ankh was the symbol of life, immortality, eternity, wisdom, and was also used as a guarding charm. Some researchers also find confirmations that ankh was symbolising the union of masculine and feminine, conception and growth, and (sexual) power. I am sure it also meant many other useful things.

There is no point to argue which of these interpretations is right, they are not exclusive and in fact together create a complex semantic kaleidoscope, with different facets of meaning blended by the ancient synthetic thinking.

The same can be said not only about an ankh, but about an entire assembly of the Egyptian gods, their relationships with each other, with the natural forces, and with the people of the Earth.  Worser even, it is unlikely that we will ever figure out what was the *real* story or meaning of them all. Partly it is because we don’t (and won’t) have enough artifacts from those times, but also because we already have so many different interpretations and re-interpretations of all these deities that the very concept of ‘Ancient Egypt’ became a simulacrum, a copy of a copy of copy, down to the very bottom of a pyramid where we again found yet another copy.

 

The picture above is one of the contemporary (re)presentations (and thus (re)interpretations) of the Egyptian pantheon. But what makes us believe that this is not a real authentic Egyptian fresco? Or more importantly, how do we know that old Egyptians would see it as a decent, recognisable depiction of their gods, and not a blasphemy, for example?

Shown here are:

Isis: goddess of magic and mysticism, but also of nature and motherhood. Here she is also depicted with the Sun-disc on her head, topped with a throne, her special symbol.

Hathor – I wrote about her already, here she is represented as a woman with a falcon head.

Bastet: goddess often depicted as a cat, who is both in charge of warfare as well as protection of the home.

Sekhmet: goddess of wrath, depicted as a car, or a lion (or a woman with the lion’s head); here also with the Sun-disk on her head.

Notice that three out of four goddesses are also holding the ankhs in the hands, and the Sun-like figure of ankh in the sky casts it beams on the Earth.

We can, of course, say that this is a only contemporary version bearing no particular meaning and/or missing many important details compared to the authentic frescos and reliefs from Ancient Egypt.

This is true, though many original and authentic artifacts show very similar scenes. For example, below is the relief of Isis (right) and Sekhmet (left) in the Temple of Kom Ombo:

One more relief of Isis (right – and she also holds an anlh) watching the fight between Horus (center), and Seth (as a hippo below) in the Temple of Horus in Edfu:

The gods and their symbols were depicted not only on the reliefs, but in multiple frescos, too. Here is an example of one depicting Imentet, the goddess of the underground world, and Ra, the main god of Egypt, the god of Sun, in form of a man with the head of eagle or falcon); notice that he also holds an ankh in his right hand .

 

The next relief is very interesting. we see here a close-up scene of Ra Horakhty (a sort of blended god of the late dynasties when Ra merged with Horus), who blesses a Pharaoh with an ankh, as if transferring him the divine power of the Sun/light.

And here is a fresco inside the Queens Temple of Abu Simbel where the Goddesses Isis (right) and Hathor (left) blessing the Queen, with all three holding their ankhs:

I could easily continue adding more and more examples of these reliefs and frescos, as well as many other Egyptian artifacts depicting ankh and various figures manipulating with this powerful symbol. But may be it’s better to stop and try to get closer to the point, i.e., the subject of mirrors-in-art.

My take on this issue is that Egyptians primarily used mirrors as the artifacts representing the Sun. These disks were deliberately made to resemble the Sun, and their capacity to reflect light made they also behaving like mini-suns. These polished disks (initially made of copper, then bronze, and up to silver and gold, and alloys made of them) were used as sacral objects.

Perhaps at some point later these disc-mirrors had been also used as the gadgets-with-benefits, providing additional functionality, such as the capacity to reflect a face when someone was look at herself (or himself – there are suggestions that these discs were used by the priests to shave their heads).  But I tend to think that in the beginning of mirror-making (and mirror-using) this was very secondary role, and that these objects were unlikely called ‘mirrors’ in our sense of the word.

The situation in some ways resembles that developments that occurred in Europe during the early Renaissance, when we saw convex mirrors “suddenly” being used instead of the icons and religions symbols; or more precisely, these icons were be manufactured with the use of mirrors (and then depicted as such). I wrote about these issues in the past, most recently in the posting about 1002 virgins and their (alleged) mirrors.

☥☥☥

In principle I could stop here, it’s more than enough for a ‘stub’. But then I decided to pile few more examples, from an interesting book that I have recently bumped into, Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen.

The book is really just a catalog of interesting artifacts from the era of King Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti and their son, Pharaoh Tutankhamen. But first, there are a lot of these artifacts (more than 250 in included in the book, all very well described), and also there are several serious articles about this era and it art, which makes this volume really worth reading (not least because Pharaoh Akhenaten is perhaps the most mysterious pharaoh in an entire history of Ancient Egypt, known for his attempt to single-handedly change this very history).

Below is a relief with a very touching scene, and quite strange too. What we see looks like is normal human family, humane even, with a father playing with a baby, and mother doing so with with two. It is known, by the way, that Akhenaten and Nefertiti had six daughters (and that’s not counting Tutankhamen), but the bas-relief showing all of them together have not yet found.

The relief is strange exactly because it shows the pharaoh as a normal human being (and not the god-like creature five times larger than anybody around). But there is another strange thing here that distinguishes it from the thousands of others reliefs made earlier: it doesn’t host of deities who are usually abundantly present on the images of pharaohs. The reason for that is the decision by Akhenaten to ‘cancel’ all other gods of Egypt, except one, Aton (or Aten), the god of Sun (or even the Sun itself,  that was understood as an aspect of Ra, but by order of Akhenaten became the deity itself).

It is therefore not quite correct to say that there are no deities in the above scene above. One is surely there, since Aton was usually represented exactly in the form, of the sun disk with the rays of light:

 

Akhenaten – whose actual nam was Amenhotep, but who changed his name after the beginning of reforms – proclaimed himself and his power coming directly from a single deity, thus absolute and supreme. Historians are still debating to what extent he abolished other gods (and their servants). Apparently, there were different phases with different degrees of tolerance to the “old gods.”

But in this history I am mostly interested in changing iconography of the ankh, and its appearance in the small ‘hands’ of the Sun, that bless pharaohs on bas-reliefs and frescoes:

As I see it, of all the Amen’s ‘hands’ only those that spread to the Pharaoh have ankh, as if transferring the strength and power of the sun to him (and sometimes to the and members of his family). On the first bas-relief ankhs, apparently, are delivered to all people, including children. But there are other examples when children are deprived of the ankhs.

The bas-relief below, with the Pharaoh bringing gifts to the Sun, is more traditional, where we see him depicted twice taller than his wife Nefertiti, and four times taller than other figure (though the latter could be his child, as they again all have ankhs).

Two diagrams below illustrate the changes of style with which the pharaoh was depicted: the left one shows the young Amenhotep, with many gods, and the right one, older Akhenaten, with one god Amon:

We don’t see any ankhs but only the Eagle-Ra on the first one, while the second has Amun the Sun in the very center, blessing the Pharaoh and his family with ankhs (one ankh is also depicted below the solar disk).

During the rule of Akhenaten ankh, which had been a highly esteemed sign already, became the supreme symbol (re)presented everywhere, from the religious objects and rituals

 

to the everyday objects, like this amphora.

 

This may also explain how ankh became the mirror box for Tutankhamun, the Akhenaten’s son.

The reform was Akhenaten was apparently very impactful but not very lasting. Already during this life, and due to resistance of powerful priests, he had return back at least some power to the old gods. It is believed that this has caused, among other things, the split of his relationships with Nefertiti, who was a zealous servant of the cult of Amun. The reforms were folded during the rule of Tutankhamun.

For me the whole story with Akhenaten and his cult of Amun-Sun (and the role of ankh in the whole affair) is just another interesting vignette showing that the mirrors of those days were probably seen, and used as iconic objects associated with sun and sunlight, and to a much lesser extent as the mirrors capable to reflect our faces.

One can object that point by noticing that some “mirrors” were indeed used as mirrors, and we have images illustrating this. Most likely yes, this too could be the case (although I would like to still put a question mark here, as we don’t have that many of these images, and could also interpret them wrongly). Our ability to project the current realities to the past, thereby “colonizing” it and presenting as yet another version of today, is well known (and very strong). We always tend to make yet another Hollywood film about Nefertiti orTutankhamun, where they would act and think ‘just like us’, only dressed in old Egyptian robes.

I began this post with the image of foreign tourists in Egypt who are trying to look inside the tomb using a (modern) mirror, without entering. Such as us (just for the record, the photo is made in 1927).

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The really final paragraph is about an important question related to the Egyptian history – of technology this time. Could it be that Egyptians were able to make glass mirror, and not only metal ones?

They knew how to make glass, not very good one, but still the capacity was there:

Did they have a chance to learn how to make glass mirrors? for example, by putting some metal on a cooling glass plate? Probably not, as don’t have any example of any glass made in ancient Egypt that would be transparent enough, and flat enough to create the mirror effect.

But some efforts could have been made. For example, we have a golden relief from the tomb of Tutankhamun that shows a strange object (in the lower right corner), an intricate disk with concentric circles and blue lapis lazuli (?)in the center. Could it be not lapis but an early convex mirror? That would symbolize the sun?

☥☥☥

Not a very short ‘stub’. But well, if I would have more time, I’d write less.

 

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